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5 stars

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Alistair Sim is by far and away the best Ebenezer Scrooge.  He is hardened and fierce yet he carries a barely perceptible regret and tenderness that makes his eventual transformation more of a de-icing than a bullet-dodged.  His exhilaration and mirth upon redemption are infectious, his realization he can play some awesome practical jokes on the likes of his housekeeper and clerk is hilarious, and his heartfelt apologies are actually very moving.  This is my favorite of the film adaptations.  DVR at once.

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Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s picture is assured, ingenious, and alternatively, hilarious and moving. A coming-of-age story that touches on the themes of leaving home and the mother-daughter relationship is not exactly original, but in Gerwig’s hands, it is fresh. Lady Bird (Saiorse Ronan of last year’s beautiful Brooklyn) is a Catholic school senior in Sacramento navigating her college choices, academic ennui, sexual inexperience, insecurity, and her family’s economic frailty, all while negotiating an increasingly strained relationship with her passive-aggressive (and sometimes, aggressive-aggressive) mother (Laurie Metcalf).

Gerwig stitches a narrative together with brisk and evocative vignettes, and her characters carry the nuance and surprise of real people. Lady Bird’s reach for popularity and desire for something beyond what she deems the stodgy and suffocating Sacramento might normally make her empathetic, but she is of her age, which means selfish and even cruel, in her ambition. This harsh light prevents the film from becoming maudlin. She’s a real girl and her world feels authentic. I watched the film with my wife and daughter, and their knowing glances and nonverbal communication throughout certified the truth of its nature.

I was reminded of different films at different times while watching Lady Bird. Gerwig’s command of pace and sharp timing evokes Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, shorn of his mannered style. Her strong portrayal of the bond of family and place also brought to mind last years’ incredibly under appreciated 20th Century Women. Finally, the mother-daughter dynamic on the eve of separation made me think of Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said.

I don’t mean to convey that Gerwig’s picture is derivative, only exceedingly accomplished. These are great pictures for purposes of comparison.

This is one of the best of the year, and I expect nominations for best picture, best director and best original screenplay. At a time when Hollywood may very well want to go with films that are smaller and more pure, keep this one in mind when filling out your Oscar ballot.

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Taylor Sheridan, the writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, has turned in a stunning directorial debut that melds his signature economy of dialogue and accomplished feel for the ebb and flow of backcountry America with a lyrical visual style. The frozen mountains of Wyoming serve as the locale to a murder investigation where FBI outsider (Elizabeth Olsen) partners with a fish and game tracker (Jeremy Renner) and an Indian reservation sheriff (Graham Greene) to solve the rape and murder of a teen found in the snow.

Sheridan is the nephew of a former U.S. Marshal and a Texas sheriff, and as with his prior films, his replication of the patter of law enforcement feels as if he has spent a great deal of time at their knee. His characters avoid the bravado and cliche’ of too many movie cops. It’s a matter-of-fact world but not cartoonish macho, one that exudes cynicism but professionalism. Like Emily Blunt in Sicario, Olsen is not the standard female cop who has to “prove” herself. There is no overcompensation.

The performances are understated and moving, and Renner in particular well renders the pain of a haunted but determined man.

Sheridan is also deftly political, never overt but still seamlessly intertwining some of the cultural realities in rural American with the narrative.  It never gets in the way of the pace, and Sheridan’s handling of the thrill part of thriller is assured.  The crescendo to a violent explosion is damn near excruciating

One of the better films of the year, which admittedly ain’t saying much this year, but that shouldn’t be held against this picture.

John Ford’s classic alternates between deft commentary on social strata, hypocrisy and manners and, for its time, jaw-dropping action (the chase scene at the end almost certainly had to result in many a broken bone, if not worse).  Orson Welles studied the picture obsessively prior to Citizen Kane, and the film’s influence is evident in everything from Eastwood’s westerns to Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight As Eastwood correctly observed, “There’s something about the way he approached his subject that broke down clichés of the era.”

In the vein of these dimwitted times, you can leave it to Tarantino to lodge the standard p.c. indictment:  “I hate him [Ford]. Forget about faceless Indians he killed like zombies. It really is people like that that kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everybody else’s humanity—and the idea that that’s hogwash is a very new idea in relative terms.”  Regardless, as is evident in Tarantino’s last film, which expertly apes and updates Ford’s socially diverse discourse, Ford’s influence is inescapable even if Tarantino believes himself immune to his charms.  An excellent rebuttal to Tarantino’s juvenile approximation of Ford can be found here and properly notes:

His films don’t live apart from the shifts in American culture and the demands of the film industry, but in dialogue with them. Do those films provide the models of racial enlightenment that we expect today? Of course they don’t. On the other hand, they are far more nuanced and sophisticated in this regard than the streamlined commentaries that one reads about them, behaviorally, historically, and cinematically speaking, and the seeds of Ulzana’s Raid and Dead Man are already growing in Fort Apache and The Searchers. Is Ford’s vision “paternalistic?” I suppose it is (and that includes The Sun Shines Bright and Sergeant Rutledge), but the culture was paternalistic, and holding an artist working in a popular form to the standards of an activist or a statesman and condemning him for failing to escape the boundaries of his own moment is a fool’s game. Maybe it’s time to stop searching for moral perfection in artists.

The film also made John Wayne a star, and Ford’s introductory shot of the actor could hardly have done less:

Methinks the fix was in.

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John Ford’s western, an extremely loose re-imagining of the Custer massacre, surprises in numerous ways.  The film has a heady sense of humor – the hard-boozing Irish of The Quiet Man are present, but not quite so cartoonishly so.  It again reveals that John Wayne was quite underrated as a dramatic actor.  But it is most unique in its melding of patriotic lore and bitter cynicism, ultimately concluding that the fraudulent propagation of patriotic heroism is at a minimum a necessary evil and perhaps even a critical component of the national ethos.  What matters, ultimately, is the myth.

It is also, of course, beautiful in its use of Monument Valley.

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My first thought for a first sentence of this review was “I don’t get it.” But that was at about 1/4 of the way through this sparse (budget – $100,000) and ingenious film that unfolds at its own languorous pace, with every scene building upon the last.

The story is simple. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are a young couple on the verge of a move from their home when Affleck dies in a tragic traffic accident. Rather than ascend to the hereafter, his ghost returns to the home. And that is where we find him. For all ages. Mind you, he is not in a CGI, wispy and elegiac form. He is wearing a sheet with two holes cut out for eyes.  And his rambler (not a creepy Victorian) is the place he haunts, throughout eternity.

Wordlessly.

The film is at first uncomfortable.  It’s hard to adjust to the low-tech representation of ghostdom, and writer director David Lowery’s penchant for lassitude tests, but soon, through the patience of the director and the stoic and sad nature of Affleck’s choice, you invest totally in his journey.

This is an art film. As such, it takes chances other movies would not dream of. Not all of its choices hit the mark, but by the end, it proves to be thoughtful, accomplished, and really intriguing.

I am stil not sure that I get it. But have been thinking and talking about it ever since watching. That alone merits high marks.

 

A charming, surprisingly thoughtful film, anchored by co- writer Kumail Nanjiani’s (Silicon Valley) substantial performance and deft support by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.  Nanjiani is a stand-up comic (a staple in a Judd Apatow produced film) and Uber driver who falls for student Zoe Kazan, a gentle heckler at one of his shows.  The hitch is his family and his cultural background – he is a Muslim from Pakistan and while he is decidedly “American” in most respects, his parents will not countenance his marrying a non-Muslim and per custom, are in the process of arranging his nuptials.  To that end, he is enlisted for ritual family dinners with prospective suitable brides, none of whom do it for him.  But he is both dishonest and weak, keeping his cultural constraints secret from Kazan while feigning devotion to his parents even as he blows off prayers and tantalizes them with the possibility of law school.  When Kazan confronts him, he wilts and does not choose her.

And then she gets sick.  So sick, she is placed in a medically-induced coma, necessitating his attention, not only towards her but her parents (Hunter and Romano).  The experience forces him to reevaluate his station, his choices and his own cowardice.

This could have been played mainly for laughs and it would have worked very well.  And the film is very funny,  Nanjiani has an understated humor, at once self-deprecating and subtle.  Some of the best moments are when he makes a joke to people who are a little slow on the uptake, only to immediately apologize at the moment the jest dawns on them.  Nanjiani is, naturally, surrounded by comedians who relentlessly attack each other, also providing solid humor.

But what elevates the film is Nanjiani’s impressive expression in dealing not only with the culture tug of his family, but with the depth of emotion at the near-death of who he comes to realize is the woman he loves.  And in his support for her parents (Hunter and Romano), from whom he gets both caution and encouragement, he grows.  The movie works on multiple levels, you invest in these people, and the result is a really tight, funny, bittersweet picture.

It has been an atrocious year for films, but this would stand out in a solid one.